Chewing This Interminable Present

Anthony Iles


In his short story, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ Jorge Luis Borges’ eponymous author rewrites Cervantes’ original line by line. Yet, as Borges insists, this is no mere copy. Rather, ‘His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.’ Thus, the author can claim a space of contingency in the procedure of writing the Quixote for he writes it only as Pierre Menard would and could at each step write it differently, even if he does not. It is this ambiguous figure of Pierre Menard which French philosopher and former trader, Elie Ayache, relates to the dense and abstract space of high-frequency financial trading. In high-frequency trading, the powerful and complex modelling enabled by computed trades produces a field of possibilities already predicted and predictable. According to Ayache, the trader, much like the writer Pierre Menard, moves through this space and time as on a solid sea and produces difference not out of probability, but out of a highly determined state by allowing himself, the body of the trader/writer, to be ‘traversed by contingency’.


Robert Ochshorn’s Chewing (2013) is the result of a computer program written to transform a video from time into space, applied to John Smith’s short film The Girl Chewing Gum (1976). Each row of the video represents one minute of time, which is mapped from left-to-right and top-to-bottom as in a book. The entirety of Smith’s film is played from top left to bottom right with the space between the first and last frame filled with shrinking frames at their correct spatial-temporal position. It is as if a hungry viewer is attempting to view the entire film at once. And this hypothetical viewer is then, most likely, some kind of machine. Chewing is written to be read differently, or intuitively.


In John Smith’s original film, an omnipotent narrator gives a running commentary on the activity of a street in Dalston, London, as if he were directing the movements of passersby, as if the street before our eyes were a scene in a film, which of course it is, and ‘all the world a stage’. The director/narrator has the manner of a sports commentator, a slightly shouty tone. Each direction is preceded by ‘I want...’, which suggests a form of sarcasm on the behalf of the speaker of the address because we know perfectly well his actors will do exactly as he says, everything has been decided in advance. The narrator/director directs the social body as completely predetermined scene. When the narrator directs the cameraman, instruction is given not from the point of view of how the camera should move, but rather from the point of view of what the viewer sees. ‘I want everything to sink slowly down’ is the cue for the camera to pan vertically upwards to settle on a clock above the row of shops. At a certain point the director/narrator choreographing the actors which appear within the small frame before us begins to lose the plot, he tells us he is standing in a field in Letchfield about 15 miles from the street scene in our view. He claims he can see a man in a duffelcoat with a helicopter in his pocket and a blackbird with a 9 foot wingspan. Yet the scene remains unchanged. As the narrator’s focus returns to the street scene the fabulation continues, he speculates that a man wearing a leather jacket crossing the street has, in fact, robbed the local bank. His hands are sweating in his pockets, we are told. We can believe our eyes, since after all they confirm that a man roughly fitting this description is indeed crossing the street. We cannot believe our ears, since we cannot visually verify this unlikely claim our two senses are forced into conflict over at least two competing readings of the scene. In this case, John Smith’s short film is an object lesson in learning not to trust our senses, the apparent determination of the social and the contingent relationship of mediation. Ochshorn’s iteration presents a harder turn to abstraction by which we can both see things as they could be, and apperceive the vision technology of film and video as utterly impenetrable to our senses as they are currently ordered. Time has been spliced, cut, chewed and spat out. 16mm film and video retain their facticity in this reconfiguration but our viewership has lost its habituated purchase upon their facts, they have literally autonomised from human sense perception. There is then here an analogy with the trading/writing couplet, whereby even a set of plotted points – a field of dynamic possibilities which has mathemetised into a list of coordinates (a diagram) – can open itself to radical contingency. Within this space of expanded yet flattened possibility copying is not necessarily copying, rather the flattening out of the field becomes the ground from which the previously inconceivable can take hold. This interminable present belongs to all.


Chewing Time, 2013 and ‘Chewing’ by Robert M Ochshorn (a reworking of John Smith's 1976 film 'The Girl Chewing Gum') were commissioned for the ‘Flatness: Cinema after the Internet’ programme at Oberhausen Short Film Festival 2013 and respectively.